One of the innovations introduced by Professor Attahiru Jega on the assumption of office as the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was the involvement of the university community in the electoral process.
Jega drafted the top echelon of the academia and serving corps members to give credibility to elections in the country. However, the results of the 2023 elections are being challenged in courts on the premise of manipulations and the alleged involvement of some Vice-Chancellors as collation and returning officers. Our correspondent examines the role of academics in the election.
The controversies surrounding the just concluded 2023 election and alleged partisanship demonstrated by some members of the academic community have confirmed the fears expressed in some quarters far back in 2011 when academics were drafted into election duties by the INEC.
Recall that in 2011, Professor Attahiru Jega, former vice-chancellor of Ado Bayero University in Kano, was appointed chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
One of the innovations he introduced was to involve the university community in the electoral process. He drew up a roadmap and one of the highlights was appointing serving vice-chancellors as collation and returning officers.
The maiden academia-led returning officers cadre appointed by INEC numbering about 35 stunned Nigerians as the election was judged to be free and fair. Thus, the 2015 election marked the first time a sitting president would organise, lose an election, accept the results, and congratulate the winner.
However, the election was marred by violence in some parts of Nigeria and led to the death of some graduate serving corps members recruited as polling agents during the election.
The 2023 Debacle
Before the conduct of the 2023 election, the incumbent INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, during a meeting with Vice-Chancellors at the National Universities Commission (NUC) office listed the category of Vice Chancellors who would not be involved as Collation and Returning Officers for the 2023 general elections.
“I must warn that staff that is card-carrying members or have participated in partisan politics should not be nominated. Similarly, those who may not be involved in partisan politics but are known to have obvious political leanings should not be nominated, just as those who have been convicted of electoral malpractice must be excluded.
Reports said like all election duty personnel, each collation, and Returning Officer swore to an oath of neutrality.
Yakubu added, “The commission will carefully scrutinise the list which must be submitted confidentially in the manner prescribed by the commission in my letter to the Vice Chancellors.”
Court Will Decide the Culpability Of VCs
In his reaction to a report credited to the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety) alleging the role of the academia in various conspiratorial roles in rigging and voter suppression in the 25th February Presidential/National Assembly and the 18th March 2023 Governorship/State Houses of Assembly elections, Debo Adeniran, Executive Director, Centre for Anti-corruption and Open Leadership (CACOL), in his argument said, “We cannot say the 2023 election was rigged until a court of competent jurisdiction says so.
“I’m glad a couple of candidates who contested in that election have approached the court for adjudication on the merits of their suspicions that the election could have been rigged.
“So, for now, we cannot say the elections were truly rigged but there have been complaints here and there that figures were altered and over-voting in some places and that figures that were recorded on form EC 8 were not what was submitted to the final coalition centers. The issues were beyond the vice-chancellors that were involved in the electoral process.
He called for a change and overhaul of the election process such that it would be impossible for anybody to change the figures that had been collated at each polling unit.
“I think the assumption is that these professors are thoroughbred professionals. The assumption is that they are not so malleable, not easy to manipulate, or that the culture and their integrity are protected such that they would not want anything or anybody to soil their image. As a matter of fact, some of them lived a Spartan kind of life and would not be attracted to the lure of corruption that usually pervaded the electoral environment.
However, Adeniran challenged the conduct of some officials of the university community in Nigeria, saying some members of the revered academic community have been indicted and found culpable for corruption both moral and financial, and even political corruption.
He added, “Some of them actually got to positions of vice-chancellors through the rigging of the selection process. So, we cannot isolate them as people of higher integrity.”
Also, Subair Femi, a political analyst, argued that the dons have not performed poorly as election umpires and indicted other officials of INEC entrusted with results collation for mismanaging the exercise from the onset.
He said, “ROs publish the notice of poll, statement of persons nominated and notice of situation of polling stations. What gets to the ROs is what they announce trusting the integrity of the polling units’ officials and party agents and collation officers.”
Describing the alleged involvement of VCs as mere allegations, Dr. Victor Mathew, Executive Director of Kingdom Advocacy Network (KAN), said the report bore no empirical evidence to substantiate it.
He added, “I am not, however, holding brief for them. The 2023 election has been marred largely by irregularities in both the national and state elections. These irregularities have put a big dent in the credibility and acceptability of the elections by most Nigerians which is clearly manifesting in the litigations instituted by several political parties.
“There are a lot of stakeholders in the electoral value chain of ad hoc personnel engaged by INEC to persecute elections of which the Vice Chancellors and other lecturers are part. Nigeria is facing corruption challenges in its national life and the Ivory Tower personnel engaged by INEC are Nigerians so it’s not surprising since some of them have compromised. This is the sad reality.
He advocated the engagement of people with proven integrity as election umpires in future appointments. Warning against being sentimental about the mere allegations against the Vice-chancellors who have set aside time to take up national assignments, Dr. Rexkennedy Saltlove, a clergy/ Civil Society Advocate and Public Affairs Analyst and Immediate Past Secretary of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), Ikeja Central Province, called for caution.
He said, “Despite the damning report indicting lots of guardians in the citadel of learning, I believe that we should not throw the baby with the bath water away, regarding VCs and Professors playing their part in the Electoral process. Nigeria is a work in progress and the malfeasance by academic dons is part of the cross we have to carry in building toward nationhood while doing all we can to strengthen the process that produces those chosen from that sector.
“My submission on this is based on a couple of reasons. The premise The Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, under Prof. Attahiru Jega introduced people from the university sector into election-related matters was well thought of; and that was/is the fact that “they were people with a track record of credibility.”
And Jega himself a don, in a dinner honour organised for him in 2015, summarising his words said, “University centers are places where ready-made, men and women of integrity should be gotten from as they would not like to dent the record, they have created for themselves”
He advocated for the strengthening of the mechanisms and process through which Returning Officers chosen from the university are engaged.
He added, “Some of such mechanisms are that each don nominated for electoral purposes, must do the following: (1) Get a letter from a first-class traditional ruler and a well-known cleric. (2) A court affidavit that would strip him/her of his /her academic records, qualification, or benefits associated with his/her position if found wanting and fingered. (3) An undertaking to name them and shame them in nothing less than three national dailies and other electronic media and social media platforms. (4) From the polling units, ward, and state, presiding officers must be made to know they must write reports of what transpired in their terrains.”